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Movie Review

Some jobs are easier than others. Just ask Major Valerian, an agent of Earth's World State Federation in the 28th century: He never gets the easy ones.

Today's assignment, for instance? Traveling through Exo Space with new partner Sergeant Laureline to the desert tourist planet Kyrian in search of a so-called converter: a small, cute, dragonish creature that, when it eats something, excretes exact duplicates of the same. Lots of 'em. Put in diamonds, and hundreds of shiny, cut carats pop out of the backside of the thing, immediately. It's not hard to understand why the little beastie—supposedly the last of its kind—is coveted by all manner of not-so-nice intergalactic entities.

To retrieve it, Valerian will need to don special glasses and a boxlike contraption that enables him to enter a parallel dimension while Lauraline directs him back.

Despite being pursued in two different dimensions by ugly aliens and an even uglier dog-like monster, Valerian and Laureline manage to nab the converter … a cute lil' guy that proves to be of even greater importance than either of them realize.

And that's just the beginning of their dizzying, frenetic adventure.

Valerian and Laureline soon travel to the floating space colony Alpha—known colloquially as the City of a Thousand Planets—ostensibly to deliver the converter to the man in charge there, Commander Filitt. They're also tasked with protecting him from hostiles who might want to get their hands (or claws or tentacles or extra-dimensional molecules) on the converter themselves.

But once they arrive on Alpha—a constantly evolving world that's home to multiple ecosystems, thousands of alien species and some 30 million inhabitants—Valerian and Laureline begin to suspect that the man they report to isn't telling the truth about … well, something. Something apparently related to the converter, which Laureline decides to hold onto herself.

As they follow clues about what's really happening, Valerian and Laureline discover a cover-up of planetary proportions. It involves a race of ethereal, human-like aliens known as the Pearl whose home world of Mül was obliterated in a battle some 30 years before. Only a handful remain. And if they're ever truly going to thrive again as a species, they're going to need their converter back.

The same little dragon that seemingly everyone on Alpha is frantically looking for.

Positive Elements

Valerian and Laureline are conscientious, faithful agents of the World State Federation. They're very good at their jobs, and they'll do just about anything—including risking their lives—to see a mission through to completion. They're also similarly loyal to each other—so much so, in fact, that Valerian repeatedly pursues a romantic and even marital relationship with Laureline (more on that below). They're forced to rescue each other frequently. As it becomes more and more obvious that the Commander's got some dark secrets, the pair confronts him about his misdeeds. (It's obvious to the audience from the almost the beginning that he's a bad guy, but characters in the film don't discover that truth quite so quickly.)

Valerian eventually has to make a choice between following orders and helping the Pearl species make a fresh, new start. Laureline must convince him that the loving decision is to help the alien race, not stick to the rules. "You really don't know what love is," she chides him. "Love is more powerful than anything else." Once he agrees, Laureline tells the Pearls, "We [human beings] are to blame for the loss of your planet. And we'd be honored to help you get it back."

Mül is depicted as a peaceful, unsullied paradise where the Pearl people live in perfect harmony with one another and their environment. A conflict between humans and another unidentified alien group results in the destruction of Mül. As such, humans are depicted as defilers of the Pearl's previously perfect and pure civilization.

Elsewhere in the film, Valerian meets female shapeshifter Bubbles (played by singer Rihanna) who helps Valerian in his quest. Along the way, Valerian affirms her value and identity apart from the "work" she's essentially forced to do. And she heroically helps Valerian rescue Laureline from aliens.

Spiritual Content

We see a Pearl religious rite (which is performed three times annually, we learn later) in which a young woman feeds the converter a—wait for it—giant pearl, which prompts the creature to secrete many more back into a mystical well. As this happens, we hear a prayer of sorts: "Let us give back to nature that which she gave to us."

When a Pearl dies, the spirit of that being is dispersed in a wave of energy across the universe and time as it seeks a worthy host to reside in after death. The daughter of the Pearl emperor is killed in a blast early in the film, and she chooses to take refuge inside Valerian, which he does not know at first. When he finally figures it out, he tells Laureline, "The princess, she's guiding me." To which Laureline responds, "You've had a woman inside you since the beginning?"

The Pearl royal couple is able to see the ghostly form of their daughter within Valerian. One tells him, "[She] chose you to be the guardian of her soul." Later we also hear that the deceased princess is about to pass on to some final spiritual rest. "Our daughter made a good choice. She can rest in peace now."

Someone says, "Godspeed."

Sexual Content

Valerian is interested in pursuing a relationship with Laureline. He flirts with her incessantly (at one point even climbing over the top of her while the two sunbathe in a beach simulator). She knows of his promiscuous past (he has what he calls a "playlist" of former lovers, and we see their portraits projected on to multiple walls of a spaceship at one point); she's not willing to entertain the idea of a relationship until he renounces and destroys his "playlist."

Eventually, Valerian ups the ante and proposes marriage, with Laureline still feigning some resistance. Eventually she becomes convinced of his love, and the two get "married" (even though they're in a drifting spaceship awaiting rescue). They kiss passionately at that point (and less so earlier in the film). Laureline wears a bikini top early on.

While pursuing aliens who've captured Laureline, Valerian is told he can only find a shapeshifter's help in what's essentially Alpha's red-light district, a place known as Paradise Alley. Multiple scantily clad, alien-but-human-looking prostitutes try to tempt him into spending his money on them.

Bubble's ne'er-do-well slavemaster Jolly the Pimp tries to sell Valerian on Bubbles' ability to please him, though Valerian's not there to be a customer for a sex show. That said, Valerian's eyes indicate moments of temptation and attraction as he watches Bubbles shapeshift through various very revealing costumes (in actress Rihanna's human form). A lengthy pole dancing scene is even more revealing, though (skimpy) undergarments are never removed.

The Pearl, for their part, wear almost nothing. While they’re not human, their physique for the most part resembles ours (albeit much thinner). The females often wear tops that just barely cover their breasts.

Violent Content

The action almost never lets up over the course of Valerian's 137-minute run time. Violence is almost as constant, though mostly of the comic book-ish variety. Valerian and Laureline tangle with all manner of aliens, humans, monsters and just about everything else—with bloodless casualties among all of the above. High-tech shootouts, chases and melees all get woven together into a seamless thread of continual, often explosive movement. We see humans and aliens flying, running, jumping, falling through walls, through floors, through space. Several scenes involve epic space battles as well, one of which consumes a planet.

A couple of more intense scenes are worth noting. The Commander captures a Pearl alien. We see the Pearl bloodied and bound to a chair, with the implication that he's being tortured (though we don't actually see it). Laureline later pummels the Commander in the face with her fists, hitting him hard perhaps half a dozen times. And the Pearl king and queen watch as their daughter, who's trapped outside the protection of a spaceship, perishes in an explosive fireball. Lethal robots unload on a group of humans and Pearls, with many bodies being shown on the ground, unmoving, afterward.

In yet another scene, Laureline (who's been captured) brings an alien king a meal. She wears a huge, plate-like hat. What she doesn't know is that her head is protruding through it, and the king intends to eat it. (We see him flexing a nasty rounded blade, presumably to pry her skull open.)

Crude or Profane Language

One clear use of "pr--k." Perhaps a muffled and indistinct s-word. Three uses of "h---," two of "a--," and one each of "d--n" and "pervert" (with the latter uttered as a derogatory accusation).

Drug and Alcohol Content

Characters are shown imbibing what are presumably alcoholic (or similar) beverages on several occasions. In one scene, a boat captain gluttonously chugs down a bottle of champagne.

Other Negative Elements

The converter instantly defecates copies of whatever it eats.

Laureline, trying to locate Valerian, puts a large jellyfish on her head (the creature somehow knows where he is). When she comments about putting its mouth over her head, another character quips, "Actually, it's not his mouth."

Conclusion

If you've seen French director Luc Besson's 1997 sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element, you've got an inkling of what to expect here. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (based on a French sci-fi comic Besson adored as a child) feels like that film to the tenth power. Or on steroids. Or whatever amplification/multiplication/acceleration comparison you want to use.

Put simply, it's a kaleidoscopic cacophony of crashing, contrasting colors. A hurricane of swirling hues. A tesseract of trans-dimensional wonder. A majestic maelstrom of moving images.

Actually, it's not simple at all, is it?

The film—which reportedly has a whopping 600 more special effects shots that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—dazzles visually. The story? Well, not so much. At every turn, it's as if Besson played some kind of dart-board-plot-point game. Following it, let alone trying to understand how its internal continuity coheres, is just about impossible. Even my introduction is just an approximation of a story that takes as many slamming, banging turns as a hyperactive pinball.

Those aesthetics are what make Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets memorable.

But we also need to focus on some content issues here.

For much of the film, I was thinking that Besson had exercised admirable restraint in terms of both language and sexuality. Then we get to Paradise Alley, where Rihanna's shapeshifting character puts on a burlesque show of rapidly changing outfits—all of which reveal a great deal of her decidedly human form.

Writing for Rolling Stone, movie reviewer Peter Travers said of the scene, "Ethan Hawke plays a pimp named Jolly, an excuse for the director to indulge his taste for kinky intergalactic sex games, though he even seem [sic] timid about getting his freak on here."

It's true that Rihanna's routine stops short of nudity. Still, the presence of what's essentially a stripper scene quickly puts to rest the idea of packing up the kids and heading out to the multiplex for this one.

On a more philosophical plane, the film takes an unexpected political turn at the end, too. Bubbles asks, "What good is freedom when you're an illegal immigrant far away from home?" Later on, the Commander's dialogue paints him as something of a "wall builder" when it comes to protecting humanity from aliens: "Protecting citizens first" is his priority. He says that if we do not, the influx of aliens will "weaken humanity's economy."

It's not hard to see what Besson is doing here with dialogue like that—a subtext that will likely resonate positively with some and rankle others.

In the end, I thought Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was a remarkable visual experience. Besson has delivered another tour de force sci-fi actioner, but one that's ultimately let down by the inclusion of some content near the end that veers in disappointing and wholly unnecessary directions.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

PG-13

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Dane DeHaan as Major Valerian; Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline; Clive Owen as Commander Arun Filitt; Rihanna as Bubble; Ethan Hawke as Jolly the Pimp; Herbie Hancock as Defence Minister; Sam Spruell as General Okto-Bar; Rutger Hauer as President of the World State Federation

Director

Luc Besson ( )

Distributor

EuropaCorp, STX Entertainment

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

July 21, 2017

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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